Law School Rankings: Do They Matter?

If you're an undergraduate considering law school or a law student considering a transfer, you've probably spent time pouring over law school rankings. After all, law school is a major investment, and you want to do your research. But what exactly do these numbers mean and how should they affect your decision?

While rankings should play a role in the decision-making process, there's also other information to consider. Even if you don't get into a high-ranking law school (like most practicing attorneys), you can still have a very successful legal career without having to shell out the money for expensive wallpaper. To put things into perspective, consider that the Army's first female Judge Advocate General (the Army's top lawyer), Lieutenant General Flora Darpino, graduated from a law school that was ranked at 92/146 in 2016. It just goes to show that rankings do not always correlate with future success.

How Are Law Schools Ranked?

While there are different organizations that compare law schools, the most prominent and often-cited law school rankings come from U.S. News and World Report. It uses a methodology based on a weighted average of 12 different measures of quality, some of which include:

  • Median LSAT scores
  • Median undergraduate GPA
  • Acceptance rate
  • Bar passage rate
  • Expenditures per student
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • Library resources
  • Peer assessments
  • Assessments by judges and lawyers

While the U.S. News rankings do impact the decisions of many law schools, especially with staffing and resource allocation, they have been subject to criticism. In fact, in 2010, a law school even attempted to boycott the rankings. Part of the problem lies in how the data is weighted. Another problem has to do with the accuracy of the data, which is often based on self-reporting by law schools and is not clearly audited for accuracy. This has unfortunately led to improper manipulation of rankings. For example, when reporting graduate employment rates, schools may count employment at non-law jobs (such as Starbucks) to inflate their numbers.

Alternate Sources For Law School Information

Given the criticism of U.S. News’ rankings and its influence, there has been a trend toward alternate school comparisons, which may be more valuable for current and future law students. For example, instead of using a single metric with various inputs weighted by a news agency, organizations like Law School Transparency provide score reports that focus more on relationships between schools and job markets.

Another helpful source comes from a University of Chicago Law School law professor who provides several limited and focused comparisons. For example, one study addresses Supreme Court placement by school, and another study measures which schools produce the most law professors. The benefit of this data is that it allows you to choose which measures are important to you. In addition, the American Bar Association provides various statistics about law schools and students, although its information tends to be national in scope and lacks school-by-school comparisons.

What Else Should You Consider?

Instead of relying solely on law school rankings, other factors that may have more weight for you include whether a law school has:

  • A strong alumni network in the area you want to practice
  • Internship programs or clinics (a great way to build your resume while in law school)
  • Programs to assist with loan repayment
  • Available scholarship opportunities
  • Specialized programs tailored to your legal area of interest
  • Joint degree opportunities
  • Part-time or evening programs

Looking Ahead

In the end, whether law school rankings matter to you depends on what you want. If it's the prestige of a diploma and an edge in the job market or the prospect of a particular judicial clerkship, then working toward a higher ranking school would be to your benefit. However, if you're looking to be competitive in the job market and to minimize your student debt, a lesser ranked law school with a good internship program, a strong alumni network, and greater scholarship opportunities would suit you just fine.

Remember, at the end of the day, your bar number is not ranked. It's a license to practice any law in your jurisdiction regardless of where you went to school.

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